One of the things I deal with when reviewing a game is my bias for or against a game. It's impossible to be completely neutral about something and even the best reviewers have their own pre-set opinions of a title before playing it. So when I tell if you had told me last year that I would have liked BioShock 2 as much as I did I would have called you a liar. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the first game (especially the final third of the game) making a sequel to the game felt like a cheap way to cash in on game with a strong brand. For me the story of Rapture and Andrew Ryan had been told and it was time to move on to greener pastures.
Just to forewarn you this review covers only the single player side of the game. We received a gold copy of the game and I did not get a chance to play the game online with other people.
Fortunately the folks at 2K Games didn't share my option as they realized that are more stories to mine from the undersea world, it's just a matter of looking at Rapture in a different way. Sure you've got a lot of the same components as the first game (Plasmids, Splicers, Big Daddies, Little Sisters, etc) but BioShock 2 has a few new things that change your perception of the world a bit. I can't talk about some of these elements as the folks at 2K Games sent a long list of things we can't talk about (spoiling large sections of the game before it even arrived) but I can tell you that the game matches the first in every way and even exceeds it in some areas.
The first game focused on Andrew Ryan's (the founder and builder of Rapture) belief in the individual, that a man was entitled to the sweat of his brow without being taxed to support others. In short self sufficiency FTW. BioShock 2 shifts the paradigm to Sofia Lamb's beliefs that the group is more important than the individual and that it's important to sacrifice yourself for the betterment of the group. Along the way she points out the folly of Ryan and how her plan is better but it doesn't come across as well as the message from the first game. The real fun now is figuring out which political set the third BioShock game will follow because you know it's coming.
Picking up a decade after the first game, you play Delta, a very special Big Daddy who can not only wield the heavy hardware of the leviathans from BioShock but can also use plasmids to boot. The game fleshes out the relationship between the Little Sisters and Big Daddies a bit and it turns out that Big Daddies are genetically bound to their Little Sister. Since you're a "special" Big Daddy you're bound to your Little Sister even more so. This means that the goal of the game isn't just to escape Rapture but to find your specific Little Sister and escape with her as you'll die without her.
Like its predecessor, BioShock 2's story is told through conversations with characters in the game and through audio clues that you find scattered throughout the game. The mechanisms still works but feels a little less original now although it's the quality has been upped a notch. There are a few moments of tension and horror created through some of these but given how much the mechanic has been copied by other games it doesn't feel as fresh as it once did.
Delta is unique in that you can use both weapons and plasmids at the same time which allows for some fun combos. For example you could freeze an enemy and then shatter them with a shotgun blast or you could do what I did which was to electrify a bunch of bad guys and then mow them down with a machine gun while they do the electric shuffle. You also get a few fun extras like portable turrets and proximity mines which can be helpful in creating some interesting trap areas. The reason you need all these things is because you'll be fighting larger quantities of Splicers, Big Daddies/Sisters, and a few other foes.
Most of the weapons are a lot of fun to use but for some reason the game really wants you to use the drill weapon. It's rare that a FPS game can make effective use of melee weapons and BioShock 2 is not one of those games. You can level the drill up to block ranged attacks as well as a fun rush attack with the drill but other than the few parts where the drill is required to solve a puzzle or two it's a weapon of last resort at best.Outside of the new ways to attack people, playing as a Big Daddy allows you to explore some of the world outside of Rapture. Where the first game featured a beautiful reveal of Rapture from the portal window of a bathysphere, the sequel allows you to see the entire city from a hill overlooking the entire place. It's a fantastic sequence and a worthy addition but the rest of the underwater segments, while beautiful, are painfully linear and tease something that could have been very cool. The real downside of these areas is that there's no combat or puzzle solving, rather they are just transitions between two areas. That said some of the underwater areas are used creatively so this is a relatively minor gripe.
From a plot and pacing perspective BioShock 2 is a slow starter. In a way the game is the inverse of its predecessor as the first game started strongly and finished weakly while BioShock 2 starts slowly and ends very strongly. The first few hours of the game feel eerily similar to the first game as the game mimics some of the same story structures and interactions as the first. Sure there's the near immediate introduction of the Big Sister's but a lot of the mechanics feel overly familiar and could turn some people off. It's not until you get past the midpoint of the game that it begins to pick up steam.
The game is littered with other slight but effective changes in the game. The get water from A to B hacking mini-game has been replaced with moving needle that you have to stop in a particular zone. Not only does this work a bit better in terms of flow of the game but it also allows you to go for hacking bonus's by landing the needed in a blue area. Hacking is now done remotely so you fire a dart before the new mini-game fires up. You can bypass this process all together by picking up autohacking darts which instantly allow you to hack a turret or security camera.
There are a few new game mechanics as well. As always the Little Sisters provide you with ADAM which is used to upgrade your abilities through tonics and new plasmids. You can also use the Little Sisters to harvest ADAM from various bodies around the game, allowing you to fulfill your role as Big Daddy. The hard part is that harvesting ADAM draws the attention of the Splicers in the area and you must defend the Little Sister until her task is complete. This is where things like the new turrets and proximity mines come into play as you have to think about the best way to defend the Little Sister from harm.
It's an interesting mechanic but it wears thin after about the third or fourth time you do it. What I ended up doing was using each sister to harvest one body and then sent her on her merry little way. Of course you don't have to do it you can just rescue the little sister by taking her to a vent but that decision is up to you.
After you've dealt with all the Little Sisters on a level you have to fight the regional Big Sister for some reason. That's right it doesn't matter if you've saved them or harvested them you still have to deal with her. I guess I could see having to fight one after harvesting all the Little Sisters but having to fight her after you've saved them seems a bit odd. The Big Sister fights are tough though and you really have to prepare yourself in order to fight her. I did find a way to cheat around the final fight as on some levels you could save the last Little Sister and then rush to the next level before the fight started. It's cheap but it did save me some time and effort.Like the first game, BioShock 2 will present you with a few moral quandaries along the way to make things interesting. The decision to harvest or save the Little Sisters returns and once again I prove myself the consummate pansy by rescuing every single one of the little rascals. I'm not sure if this is a character flaw or not but for whatever reason I still can't bring myself to save them. In addition to that decision there are a few other key decisions you can make in the game, specifically around killing or leaving certain characters alone. What I liked is that there's no press A to kill them press B to save them prompt you just make your decision and the game figures out your intent. This really worked for me as the game wasn't overt about forcing you to make a decision, rather it was a natural extension of the game.
Your decisions will lead you to one of four endings in the game. I can't spoil the ending but there's an interesting lesson on parenting in the game that might have more impact on someone who's a parent.
BioShock 2 inherited some fantastic audio design from the original game and realizing that you don't fix what already works the folks at 2K Games left it mostly intact. You still hear Big Daddies before you see them and there are a few other nice touches in the game. The musical score is also excellent and probably worth a purchase in and of itself.
Various life factors have kept me from finishing the review as soon as I would have liked to. The upside of that is that I've had some time to get some distance from the game and reflect upon my experience with it. As I stated in the lead of the review I had a very strong bias against the game and after playing it I can say that I did enjoy my second trip to Rapture as the game provided a lot more history about the world than the first did and broke some new ground. To be honest I'm uncomfortable about how much I enjoyed the game as there are a few plot holes and a few things that don't make a lot of sense upon reflection. The game is worth your time if you're a fan or the original and there's not denying the quality of the Bioshock 2. It's just a matter of question if this is the kind of thing you want to reward with your money or not.